From HBR: Social Media Success Is About Purpose (Not Technology)

In the real estate world, there is a saying: “The three considerations that most impact value are location, location, and location.” In the world of social media, they are purpose, purpose, and purpose.

Nothing impacts the success of a social media effort more than the choice of its purpose. Because purpose becomes the cause around which people will rally and be inspired to act, it is also the source of social media’s business value.

What is a good purpose for social media? Would you recognize one if you saw it? And if you could identify a good purpose, would you be able to mobilize a community around it and derive business value from it?

If you’re like most executives (and you’re being honest), probably not.

No wonder most organizations struggle with gaining tangible and significant business value from social media. This single most important criterion for success is also the biggest leadership skill deficiency.

That deficiency often leads to a worst practice we call “provide and pray.” Leaders and managers provide access to a social technology, and then pray that a community forms and that community interactions somehow lead to business value. In most cases, adoption never really materializes; communities may form, but their activity is not considered valuable to the organization.

The lesson? People rarely rally around a technology. Success in social media needs a compelling purpose. Such a purpose addresses a widely recognized need or opportunity and is specific and meaningful enough to motivate people to participate. Every notable social media success has a clearly defined purpose:

  • Facebook’s core purpose is for people to easily track what their friends are doing.
  • Wikipedia’s purpose is for the masses to collectively build an online encyclopedia.
  • LinkedIn’s purpose is for people to leverage their professional networks for employment and hiring.

Yes, some social Web environments have strayed from their original purpose. But they made a name for themselves because they started with a clearly defined and tightly scoped purpose, gained critical mass, and mobilized their respective communities.

Choosing the right purpose is difficult (much harder than providing the technology). It requires a new management approach we call “purpose roadmapping” — planning how to use purpose to engage and sustain productive communities. A purpose road map shows how community collaboration and related business value can evolve over time, and provides critical guidance on the required investments and risks. It also informs all lower-level implementation decisions such as technology selection, content seeding, policy, moderating, and tipping-point marketing.

Purpose is a business decision. And business leaders must get involved in strategically choosing and pursuing the right ones. This is why success with social media is primarily a leadership and management challenge, not a technology issue.

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